In Our Own Native Language
Acts 2: 1-12
August 31, 2011
This is a school whose commitments include the memorable words, "The Divinity School is committed to the faith that brought the church into being, and it believes that one comes more authentically to grasp that faith by a critical and open examination of the Hebraic and Christian traditions." So today, in this place, we've heard a story from the Hebrew Scriptures, and a story from the Christian New Testament. So let's be critical and let's be open. The church was born when a mighty wind came and people started speaking good news in many languages. What lesson for embracing today's diversity has this birthday memory for us?
The story of Babel is Pentecost's shadow side, showing how language, and tribe, and race, and faith groups can divide us. What lesson do we draw from that cautionary text? Somebody may have told you that you needed to work to keep your faith at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Forget you for a moment. The real challenge these texts remind us is for all of us, different as we are, to speak and hear words of faith together. So here's the question: what do these texts tell us about finding and keeping OUR faith?
But first, because you don't get to the mountaintop without going through the valley, let us start with what we learn when we are very young. I clearly remember a Saturday night seventeen years ago when we were watching the news as a family of three. The news gave way to the weekend edition of Entertainment Tonight. We watched the story of the CBS medical reporter, Bob Arnott, and the little boy he and his crew found in Rwanda, lying in a pile of bodies, apparently dead, but strangely moving. Forgetting everything he knew about Cholera, Arnott was moved to pick up the child, and to evaluate him as his medical training taught him to do. He gave the child some water, and carried him in his arms to a treatment center where they nursed the boy back to health. The reporter himself contracted cholera, and was treated.
As with a book you can't put down we sat transfixed to the television set. All thoughts of how we were going to explain the disease and evil and squalor of the situation in Rwanda to a three year old was forced from our minds. When the segment was over the questions came pouring out. Fortunately the immediate story was simple and good, "the man took the little boy to the place where he could get medicine for his sickness." Nevertheless, the perennial question of the three year old child, "why?" continued. It's a good question and I could stop right there and ponder it if this were a different sermon. But the thing that caught my attention that night was what happened after the commercials.
ET's next story was about some five-year-old rap entertainer whose name got by me. Julia watched more intently than Heidi, or I, and then she called our attention to what she saw. "Look," she said, "that boy's all better." Our child was picking up on skin color. She was categorizing on the basis of race, with good intentions, but still in some kind of error as she missed other cues that would have enabled her to see the differences between the two boys. As you raise children, you want them to give things their proper weight. How do you keep racial identification from sliding into later racism? How do you nurture that first instinct that says, "There's a little boy like me who's sick"?
Theologically, what we are to remember and affirm is rather simple: God made us all different--many colors, languages, shapes--but God made all of us. In practice, however, finding a comfortability zone in the dialectic between the diversity and unity of humankind proves difficult. People always tend to fall back on the familiar, the particular, and concentrate on "people like me." But it doesn't stop there, they also will begin to restrict--in their own minds--the operations of God to their own kind. The greatest compliment a people can pay to the gospel is to make it so part of themselves that it becomes second nature to them; so that Jesus is so real, you picture him going to your school. The greatest disservice people can pay the gospel is to be able to hear Christ only in their own language, to see Christ in the faces of their children alone. Repeatedly throughout human history, people who thought of themselves as God's people have denied that other people are as well. Here at Vanderbilt Divinity School we are always trying to achieve unity in diversity, and then going off into our little denominational, ethnic, and interest groupings. The fact that we try to hold it together at all makes us hopefully different, but it doesn't guarantee a new Eden in Nashville, Tennessee.
I find this morning's New Testament text refreshing for it says that we are meant to have it both ways. The people hear each in his or her own language, but they hear the same thing. At precisely the same moment as one would expect a church growth expert to come out and say, concentrate on reaching people like you all ready have, hunker down, grow from your strength, you'll grown mostly from friendship contacts, don't dissipate your energies, the spirit of God blows the roof off the top and throws a party for anyone and everyone.
"They must be drunk from new wine," the onlookers say. They can't imagine how anything in this world could be that much fun without the benefit of a lot of drinks. Judging from the appearance of this rag tag crowd, it must be cheap, new wine. But wait, listen, don't I hear the language of my own people? It's been so long since I ran into another of my people, but these look like Galileans.
What's going on? What's going on is the right question for most of the New Testament era church, for the struggle with diversity and community and what God seems to be asking people to do runs across the grain of their experience.
From the earliest centuries in the life of the church people have made the connection between our two texts. In the Genesis account, God confuses the tongues of human beings and separates humanity into many linguistic groups. In Acts, the Spirit of the living God inspires people to speak those languages to tell of the good news of what God has done in raising Jesus from the dead. So what's the difference? Well in Genesis, the people are frustrated in their communication efforts because they have forgotten who God is. They are building skyscrapers that reach for the heavens. What could be next? Genesis' core message, like the rest of the Torah, is that all that is is God's doing-- and don't you forget it. If the Tower of Babel is what happens when you forget God, Pentecost is what happens when the Spirit of God takes over. If Babel shows what's wrong, and how we became separate, Pentecost is a reconciliation message. This God, who raised Jesus from the dead, is everyone's God, not the God of the Judean Jews alone. Greeks, Meades, Parthinians, every one is invited to hear the good news in their own language.
Nothing in life makes us feel so welcome as does hearing words we understand.
The message of Pentecost is that God's message is spoken in all languages, that God intends for us to be one family of many tongues after all. The central affirmation for the first century witnesses was that they heard the good news in their own languages. They were welcomed. And so the church was born.
As school begins again at the Divinity School, I cannot help but wonder which story we 21st-century Christians (and other people of faith) will make our story—Babel or Pentecost? We are surrounded by brothers and sisters who do not share our English language, but I believe God has given us to one another. Will we learn to speak, as ambassadors, in other languages to be understood and to understand one another?
Will we be Babel, where language is a barrier, or Pentecost people were any difference can be translated? I pray that God's in-breaking at Pentecost will inspire us to respond to people in our time without fear. I pray that whatever difference we see embodied in this place, we still hear that God is good, all the time, and that in God we can be good for each other. May God give us the courage to speak and the ears to hear. And let all the people say, AMEN.